How to chair

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Lion tamer (Sourced from Wikimedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_tamer_(LOC_pga.03749).jpg)

What’s worse than having to give a conference paper in front of my esteemed colleagues?

I’d say it’s chairing these esteemed colleagues!

Through my years of presenting at and convening conferences, I have always had one greater fear than being the paper-giver and that was being the chair. It feels pathetic to admit this, but the responsibility of chairing brought all my apprehensions about public speaking to the fore.

When giving a paper, I’m usually anxious about “question and answer” (Q&A) time – the Wild West of conference moments (right next to the conference dinner…). It was a time over which you had little control over what might be thrown at you. You couldn’t plan for it. My imagination (which is excellent, by the way), conceived of all manner of intellectual take-downs and derisive snorts about my conclusions.

These preoccupied me such that I wrote about my strategies for handling Q&A.

Chairing taps into all my existing anxieties: it was a whole session where you weren’t necessarily in control of what people might say or do, but this is specifically what you are tasked with as the chair.

I’ve written before about how to build your conference karma (aka ‘how to make convenors love you’) and, spurred on by a recent query from my colleague Warren Staples (@warrenstaples), here’s a list of strategies I’d suggest to get you through a chairing gig.

First up, what do I mean by chairing?

Chairing is when you’re responsible for managing a particular event session. It could be a conference panel or plenary session, departmental seminar, or public lecture. You might be chairing a single keynote speaker, a panel of three or four experts, or a round-table of ten. Usually, a chair is the one responsible for:

  1. introducing the session and speaker(s),
  2. keeping the session to time,
  3. ensuring an orderly Q&A time, and
  4. providing concluding comments.

So, when I’m invited to chair these days, this is what I try to do in my planning:

1. Introducing the session and speaker(s).

If possible, I’ll hunt up the speakers before the actual session, introduce myself, and get a feel for what they are like. If you already know the person, of course, things are usually less intimidating, though this may not hold if they are one of your academic heroes who engender feelings of unworthiness (hopefully, you’re only doing this on the inside).

It’s also useful to get clarity from the overall event convenors about format (e.g. do panel sessions have their questions after each paper or after everyone’s done theirs?), and expectation (e.g. for keynotes: are you meant to be in a ‘respondent’ kind of role [where you'd speak to the person's presentation for a bit], or purely chairing?). Once you’re clear on what the session is meant to be, you can convey that to the speakers.

2. Keeping the session to time.

This is the element that can be most challenging. As I mentioned in that earlier post on conference karma, I’ve seen some innovative ways of getting people off the stage if they’ve overstayed their welcome. As a chair, you need to be prepared to step in and be assertive about getting the next person on. If you, like me, are a bit chicken about this kind of thing, I’ve found that it really helps to think about the injustice to other speakers on the panel (everyone should have their fair share of time).

Or: imagine all those times you’ve been the tail end of a panel session and the chair never stepped in, and the preceding speakers chewed up all the session time, leaving you to force your carefully crafted 20-min paper into the 10 mins ‘overtime’ the session’s been grudgingly allowed. That usually does the trick for me.

In general, make sure the speakers are very clear on how much time they have to present, and how you will be telling them their time is up (or almost up). Most chairs I’ve seen have two signals: one for ‘your time’s almost up’ (about 2 mins out from time), and another for ‘time’s up’. These could be small paper signs, fingers held up, or tapping on a glass. What you need to make sure of, however, is that the speaker can see/hear you. Doesn’t matter how assiduous you are about timekeeping if the speaker can’t see or hear the time warnings (or can pretend they haven’t seen or heard the warnings – this happens more often than you’d think!).

I’ve found it helpful to schedule the session for myself on a piece of paper so I know when each speaker should be finishing up, next speaker is on, etc, without having to think about how long they’ve been talking already.

3. Ensuring an orderly Q&A time.

The latter part of Point 2 is important because, as the chair, it’s your responsibility to fill the vacuum if there happens to be a sucking lack of questions during Q&A. This is where chairing is an art-form – if you keep everything to time and manage to make all participants feel like they’ve had a good conversation and gained value from the session, you win. It’s often difficult to strike this golden standard.

Q&A is when you may need to curtail showboaters, wafflers, and strangely vindictive and unhelpful people. @ResearchMark’s take on this was posted while I was finalising this post.

If the ‘prefacing’ of a question is too long, you need to step in. If fisticuffs are imminent, you need to step in. If one speaker is hogging all the questions, you should step in. None of these things may happen, but the fact that they might is what makes me a bit twitchy. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve witnessed some extremely bad behaviour during Q&A in the past. They’re rare, but for me those incidents have embedded a certain apprehension about Q&As that I haven’t been able to shake.

4. Providing concluding comments.

This is something that not all chairs are required to do. At the very least, you thank the speakers and audience. Sometimes, at conferences, you may need to draw together the panel or keynote’s major themes and offer it back to everyone as issues to  think about as they participate in the rest of the program.

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The thing with this whole post is that if you’re not interested in being a good chair none of it matters. Part of what drives me to be a good chair is having seen really, really bad ones in action. The scars from these still show in the anecdotes above.

Conferences are a necessary and fun part of academia. The more professional consideration and support that’s spread around at them, the better!

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

3 Responses to How to chair

  1. Paul says:

    My biggest concern is about what to call people – ‘hello there you there’ – when I know the names of only half the audience

    • researchwhisper says:

      Yes, I’ve had that anxiety! I found myself doing things like “and you, down the front”, etc. Not ideal. I do envy those who nod and name each questioner in one of those sessions. It seems so…accomplished.

    • researchwhisper says:

      That was me (@tseenster), btw. Sorry. signed in with the other account!

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